Travel can be life changing. Getting out of your routine and deliberately inserting yourself into the middle of the unfamiliar can be a great way to help you open your mind. And, if you’re really lucky, it might even help you open your heart.
We were blessed to have an experience like this a few years ago when we visited the Alsace region in France.
We started our adventure in Paris and traveled by TGV (High Speed Bullet Train) to Strasbourg. We spent our first day in Alsace enjoying Strasbourg’s fantastic food and incredible sights, then got a good night’s sleep and set off the next day for Gueberschwihr, where we had scheduled an afternoon appointment at Domaine Burn.
As winery owners, we felt a little guilty about imposing on our host Francois Burn on a Sunday. After all it was harvest time. We thought of our own typically hectic schedules in late September and figured the guy would have an hour to spend with us. Tops.
We arrived on time. Monsieur Burn appeared immediately and greeted us warmly, as if he had been eagerly anticipating our visit. When I saw his broad smile and felt his sincere handshake, I knew we were in for a special treat. He reminded me a little of Gerard Depardieu, and when I told him so later in the afternoon, he winced, then belly-laughed.
“I’m not so fat!” he protested.
Francois asked us to speak slowly so he would be sure to understand. His English was excellent. He told us the history of his family, which has been making wine for some 300 years, and spoke respectfully of his father. Ernest Burn had decided in 1934 to revive the historic Clos Saint-Imer vineyard, which had been parceled up during the French Revolution, destroyed in successive wars and ravaged by phylloxera. Francois suggested a tour of Clos St. Imer; so we all piled into our rental car and drove along narrow, rocky dirt roads to a plot at the top of a hill overlooking the countryside.
The slopes were steep, and I asked Francois how he was able to spray his vines. (No way you could run a tractor on these crazy angles…) “Helicopters,” he answered matter-of-factly. I wondered if something had gotten lost in translation!
As we stood on the side of the hill, Francois pointed out the Rhine River (the border between France and Germany) some 40 kilometers away. We passed a stone wall that wound through vineyard. “Ora et Labora,” it proclaimed in Latin. “Work and Pray.” I felt like we were entering a sacred place.
Francois showed us the Chapel of St. Imer nestled along the edge of the vineyard and told us the story of his father, who had served on both the French and German sides in World War II. He explained how Ernest had wound up in a German concentration camp in occupied Poland at the end of the conflict.
As we walked through the vineyard, I noticed a monument, a tall cross. At the top a heart was carved, surrounded by what appeared to be flames. The inscription was etched towards the bottom in German: “Ich lege in Gottes Hand, Das Leid, Das Gluck, Der Anfang, Und Das Ende.” At its base, were the words “Odile et Ernest Burn.”
“What does it say?” I asked Francois.
His eyes misted over as he translated this beautiful tribute to the memory of his parents: “I place into God’s hands our joys, our cares, our beginning and our end.”
Holding back my own tears, I started scribbling furiously in my steno pad. I hoped Francois wouldn’t see how moved I was by his simplicity and openness. And I remembered all the negative things I had heard Americans say about French people over the years. I wish each one of them could have visited this place and known Francois Burn.
Finally, we drove back to winery, although I admit I could have stayed in that peaceful place with the incomparable views forever. The tasting room was cozy and welcoming, and Francois took us through his entire product line, including numerous Grand Crus and rare vintages of Vendanges Tardives (Late Harvest Wines).
I envied Francois Burn, who seemed to have lost track of the time. I wished (maybe even prayed) that I could be like him… generous with his time, his history, his culture and even his wine.
As we were finishing, some tourists popped into the Tasting Room on the off chance it might be open on a Sunday afternoon. As Francois answered their questions in French (he was nice to them too!), the four in our group began to discuss how much wine we should buy to try to make it up to poor Francois for “wasting” his entire Sunday afternoon.
We chose several of the more expensive vintages, concentrating on the ones from the Clos St. Imer Vineyard we had just visited. Francois disappeared into the cellar and returned with his arms full. We whipped out our credit cards. Damn the cost, we decided. We owed it to the guy.
When we saw the look of dismay on Francois’ face, we understood. This wine (and this afternoon) were his gift to us. It wasn’t about time or obligation or even selling his product. It was about sharing…a lesson I definitely needed to learn.
We extracted a promise from Francois. “Come visit us in the States,” we begged. “Let us return the hospitality.”
"Un de ces jours… peut-être….” (One of these days…maybe…) he answered, then flashed us one of those impish Gerard Depardieu grins.
When we said goodbye, I held on to our host’s hand a little longer than I should have. I hated to leave. As we headed out the front gate, I turned back and watched Francois waving. I resisted the urge to pull out my camera and tried to stay in this special moment so I could remember it forever.
So far so good.
Christine Carroll is a Certified Specialist of Wine. She is also a columnist for Wines and Vines Magazine in San Rafael, California, and one of the principals of Crossing Vineyards and Winery. You can contact her at: email@example.com